Dust off those binoculars and brush up on your birding skills. The 2013 Great Backyard Bird Count is on and South Florida is a historical hotbed of action.
The four-day count -- a joint effort by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada -- is a large-scale citizen-science project with participants from around the globe. There's no cost to join and it's open to birders of all levels, from the casual feeder watcher to hardcore "listers."
Scientists use the data collected from counters throughout the world (plus information gathered from other similar projects like the Christmas Bird Count) to track bird populations. The observations are used to measure issues like how disease affects bird populations on a regional level and how human population concentration impacts bird diversity.
The data also can be used to address big-picture questions like how weather impacts migration and population numbers, something that is particularly topical this year, given several extreme weather events in 2012. As a USA Today story from Nov. 2012 reported, Hurricane Sandy impacted migrating birds last fall, disrupting some species' flights and rerouting other birds entirely. South Florida -- particularly Miami-Dade and the Keys -- are important stops on several important flyways. A flyway is the flight route that birds use during annual migrations.
In addition to playing a significant role nationally, South Florida is, simply put, a birder's paradise. The diversity of species available and comfortable climate make for a pleasant winter counting experience. Florida also has the advantage of being a winter and/or annual home to an abundance of easy-to-spot and easy-to-identify birds, including a host of waders, like herons and egrets. Rarer birds, like the roseate spoonbill and painted bunting, are more challenging to locate, but at least there's a chance. The same cannot be said for our snowed-in neighbors to the north, who may have to suffice with less glamorous birds like pigeons and starlings.
To see how things are shaping up around the state and country, check out the various interactive maps available to track data input. This map allows you to see submissions for the 2013 count, with searching available by species and location. For instance, search "wood stork" in Florida, and you can see there have been reports in Boca Raton, Port St. Lucie, and elsewhere. This maproom, meanwhile, allows the user to compare and contrast data from previous years by species, year, and region.
Participation in the count requires registration and a minimum of 15 minutes of active counting. The counting can take place in a backyard, golf course, public park, natural area, and so on. Instructions on how to participate can be found here.
In the interest of disclosure, the author has made nominal monetary donations to National Audubon Society within the last year.